Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Clearing the Table

Photo by Barney Taxel, Taxel Image Group

This happens often: My husband and I are enjoying a meal in a restaurant. It might be an established upscale place or a trendy new semi-casual spot. Doesn't matter what the price point. One of us finishes first and a server or bus person swoops in and clears the plate while the other person is still eating. We both hate this. It's disruptive and impolite. And according to my personal and professional knowledge, it's just plain wrong. Sometimes they even interrupt our conversation to ask if they can take away a plate that still has food on it simply because there was a pause in fork-to-mouth activity.
Last week, Giovanna Migrone — formally trained chef, culinary instructor and former owner of Battuto, a beloved but long gone fine dining establishment in Little Italy — posted this on Facebook: "It is proper service to wait until all parties are finished eating before your server ... clears plates. That way the person who is still eating does not feel rushed. Also, this allows for the plates to be cleared with the proper technique."

Photo by Barney Taxel, Taxel Image Group

This prompted me to raise the issue with more industry professionals. The responses were illuminating. It turns out that people in the business know what's right but their customers don't. Here are some of the responses I received:

Molinari's chef and owner Randal Johnson: Never clear until everyone is done, unless requested.

Flour chef and owner Paul Minnillo: The standard is don't touch anything until everybody is finished, but some customers don't like dirty plates left in front of them and they'll complain if we leave them there. So how and when to clear is the million dollar question.

Food writer and former editor and associate publisher of Restaurant Hospitality Stephen Michaelides: Nothing worse than a server — anxious to clear dishes — asking a guest not quite finished eating, "You still working on that?"

Cooking school founder Zona Spray Starks: Clearing dishes while others are eating is like saying, "Sorry, buddy, but you're finished too."

Food writer and restaurant reviewer Elaine Cicora: The "rule" is to wait until all guests are finished to clear, but if a server sees someone is antsy — moving around plates, stacking on the flatware — then clearing is acceptable. Mainly, I think the problem is not that servers don't know the "rule" but that diners don't.

Crop chef and owner Steve Schimoler: We try so hard to wait till everyone is finished, but many of the diners don't know proper etiquette at all and push stuff around the table to clear it themselves. It's so rude for someone's guest who is speaking for a good part of the meal and can't eat as fast as the others who have wolfed their food down.

My daughter-in-law, Shelley Taxel, works at Naha in Chicago. She writes: From my service perspective, I find it awful to clear without everyone being done. However, if a guest gives one of the "signs"  — napkin in or on plate, pushing it completely aside, stacking other dishes on their plate — I clear it. The fact that it happens to you when you don't give any of these signs could be the result of poor training, a push from management to turn the table, or servers who want to get done and go home.

So the question is, what can those of us who prefer a clear line of demarcation between eating and cleaning do? I’ve tried to communicate subtley by saying we’re not in a hurry or that we’d like to take our time. But it doesn’t help. Would it be appropriate to speak more directly and ask our server to please not clear dishes until everyone at the table done or would this be offensive? Speak up. I want to know what you think.

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